Sanders’ emergence, Manning’s brilliance and more thoughts from Broncos-Chargers

A scoreless first quarter didn’t deter the Denver Broncos from pouring it on late in their 35-21 victory against the San Diego Chargers on Thursday night.

With AFC West supremacy at stake, it was Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders’ emergence — nine receptions, 120 yards and three touchdowns — in front of a raucous crowd at Sports Authority Field that proved to be the difference. Though on this night, it could’ve been any one of the Broncos’ pass catchers producing when quarterback Peyton Manning is playing at such a high level.

In fact, it was the scoreboard operator who drew the ire of Manning. Coming out of the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter, the scoreboard operator energized the home field crowd by playing music and showing video of the Chargers. The noise caused a false start, which surely didn’t sit well with Manning.

"I have no problem with our fans. Our fans are great. I’ve got a problem with our scoreboard operator," Manning said after the game. "I’m gonna have a little talk with him. I’m not sure what he’s doing.

"He was playing music, showing people — showing players dancing, getting the crowd fired up while we had the ball. I don’t think we should be doing that. I don’t think we should be showing their quarterback on the sideline. I thought that was kind of disrespectful. Our fans are great, our fans are loud, so the scoreboard operators … it wasn’t his best night."

Manning, completing 25 of 35 for 286 yards and three touchdowns, extended his all-time touchdown total to 513 just four days after breaking Brett Favre’s record.

While San Diego didn’t go quietly, piecing together an eight-play, 80-yard drive in the fourth quarter, it was too late to overcome a three-score deficit. Quarterback Philip Rivers lofted a deep ball intended for wide receiver Malcom Floyd, but it was picked off by safety Rahim Moore. Denver’s offense was able to run off a majority of the remaining six minutes in regulation.

But it was Sanders and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, with each reception, exposing the most glaring mismatch of the night. A depleted Chargers secondary couldn’t stop the caliber of receivers Denver boasts.

With cornerbacks Brandon Flowers (concussion) inactive and Jason Verrett (shoulder) sidelined for the second half, Manning connected with six different receivers. Cornerback Shareece Wright was picked on early and often, despite breaking up a key third-down pass to tight end Julius Thomas in the second quarter.

The Chargers were unable to cause any turnovers, create any sacks or disrupt the rhythm and timing of offensive coordinator Adam Gase’s unit.

PEYTON'S PLACE

Notching another win, the Broncos (6-1) tighten their grasp on the division at the season’s midway point. For the Chargers (5-3), it’s the second straight division loss as they’ll lick their wounds for 10 days in anticipation of a Week 9 matchup against the Miami Dolphins. Here are more thoughts from Thursday night’s game.

A performance to remember

Sanders, who was signed this offseason in free agency, has four touchdowns over the past two weeks. While his 11-reception outing against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 3 certainly was notable, this was his most complete performance beating opposing cornerbacks in the short, intermediate and deep passing game. Sanders whizzed by cornerback Richard Marshall on a fade route before halftime, hauling in a 31-yard touchdown reception.

Hillman’s job to lose?

It appears that running back Ronnie Hillman could be gaining ground as the full-time starter in Denver. With running back Montee Ball sidelined because of a groin injury since the first week of October, the third-year speedster Hillman has dazzled the past three weeks. Hillman continues to show good vision and burst, getting to the second level consistently. Finishing with 20 carries for 109 yards, Hillman also was a factor in the passing game, hauling in three balls for 29 yards. While Ball reportedly is making progress, the Broncos have a few solid options in their backfield.

Open up the Gates

Rivers to Antonio Gates has become a San Diego staple over the past decade. The duo extended its record for the most quarterback-to-tight end touchdown connections to 69 on Thursday night. Gates, who continues to defy Father Time, came up large in the Chargers’ fourth series of the game. Facing a third-and-20, Gates found space in a soft zone coverage for a critical conversion, setting up the team’s first score. The 31-yard reception allowed Gates to surpass Lance Alworth for most receiving yardage in team history. Gates finished with five receptions for 54 yards and two touchdowns, one which was tightly contested by Broncos safety T.J. Ward.

Won’t forget your first

It took 2013 Rookie of the Year finalist Keenan Allen eight games to get his first touchdown of the season. The Chargers wide receiver ran short crossing routes to soften up Denver’s man coverage and was very productive in doing so. The second-year receiver caught nine balls for 71 yards and a touchdown. A memorable one, indeed.

Now that’s pretty special

Just how impressive has Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas been over the past month? With four consecutive 100-yard performances, Thomas wrote his name into the team’s record books, according to Broncos VP of public relations Patrick Smyth.

Missed opportunities

Chargers Pro Bowl safety Eric Weddle forced two turnovers, but each was negated. A one-handed interception, which would’ve snapped Denver’s streak of 54-straight red zone scores, was called back because of a holding penalty by Marcus Gilchrist. Later in the game, Weddle jarred the ball free from Sanders’ right hand, but the fumble was recovered by wide receiver Wes Welker.

Wide left

Broncos rookie kicker Brandon McManus missed his only attempt of the night: a 53-yard kick that likely would’ve put the game on ice sliced left of the uprights. McManus’ longest kick this season is 44 yards. The Broncos cut longtime kicker Matt Prater earlier this month after he was coming off a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse. Prater has since been signed by the Detroit Lions.

FASHION POLICE

Nowhere to run

Aside from Branden Oliver’s 23-yard run on the Chargers’ final possession, the rookie running back was held in check. The undrafted rookie fell victim to the Chargers’ poor offensive line play and speedy pursuit of Denver’s linebackers. Oliver’s 13 carries for 39 yards certainly fell short of the team’s game plan. Twelve of Oliver’s 21 touches finished for a gain of 1 yard or less. The Broncos’ interior linemen were able to push the pocket and not allow Oliver much room to run. Linebacker Brandon Marshall, whom FOX Sports 1’s NFL insider Mike Garafolo featured on Thursday, added 10 tackles to his team-high tally of 47.

The turning point

On the kickoff after the Chargers’ first score, linebacker Kavell Conner forced a fumble by kickoff returner Andre Caldwell. Tight end Ladarius Green recovered the ball, but the officials overturned the ruling on the field. Despite the cameras clearly showing the ball coming free from Caldwell’s possession, officials ruled it Denver’s ball. The Broncos rolled off 21 points unanswered.  

Tweet of the night?

Nothing screams backyard football more than watching Rivers. After throwing his second touchdown to Gates, Rivers was driven to the ground by linebacker Von Miller. On cue, Rivers delivered a colorful tongue lashing, which sparked the attention of Arizona Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, watching from afar.

Making a case for DPOY

Speaking of Miller, the Broncos linebacker quietly is making a run at the defensive player of the year honors, leading the league with nine sacks. With Texans defensive end J.J. Watt clearly a contender, one has to think a Broncos run to the postseason could assist Miller’s case. Not just a sack specialist, Miller had his highlight of the night in blowing up tight end John Phillips, bursting into the backfield and bringing down Oliver for a loss.

Extending drives keeps you alive

San Diego’s offense entered the game ranked second in the league in third-down conversions (51 percent), but was overmatched by Manning and Co. The Chargers converted 4 of 10, while Denver cashed in on 8 of 13.